Friday, November 20, 2015

CD Review - The Hamilton County Ramblers !


by: Mark Raborn       

The debut, self-titled CD by the Hamilton County Ramblers features eleven cuts with material as varied as Stephen Foster’s, Hard Times, James Taylor’s Copperline, and I Hear Ya Talkin’, penned by cowgirl, country song-writer, Cindy Walker. With that said there is still enough traditional, Bluegrass-type material to satisfy all but the most persistent and jaded Bluegrass purists.

"From the first few listening moments, it is clear that this project benefits from first rate production counsel."

Though the material draws from several genres, the overall feel of the project falls comfortably under the ‘bluegrass’ umbrella, especially if one is willing to concede the single Old-time cut, Old Chattanooga (distinguished from the others by banjoist Jim Pankey’s clawhammer-style playing and performed as a duet with fiddler, John Boulware), and the aforementioned a cappella, Stephen Foster piece, Hard Times and the very cool and swingy, I Hear Ya Talkin’. All cuts use traditional ‘bluegrass’ instruments—no drums, harmonicas, accordions, pianos, triangles or bugles here, though they squeeze in a tastefully appropriate blues guitar solo on I Hear Ya Talkin’

One of my favorite cuts is the more traditional sounding Separating Hearts, which, like most all the others, features mandolinist James Kee on lead vocals, with bassist, Josh Hixson, and fiddler John Boulware offering up solid and well-blended harmonic vocal support. Add superb backup banjo playing and Roy Curry’s guitar solo and this piece stands out as exceptional. The feel could be compared to some of the earlier Seldom Scene recordings, especially with respect to the quality of the arrangements, the instrumental proficiency, and the seemingly effortless vocals.

Along with Separating Hearts, If You’re Thinking You Want a Stranger, I Just Came Back to Say Goodbye and Reno & Smiley’s Wall Around Your Heart are examples of more traditional bluegrass fare. The upbeat, If You’re Thinking You Want a Stranger, offers stellar instrumental-break performances by guitarist extraordinaire, Roy Curry, as well as James Kee, Jim Pankey and John Boulware.

The James Taylor classic, Copperline, is another of my favorites. Pankey plays a low-tuned banjo with good effect and Boulware’s fiddle beneath both voice and banjo is beautiful, yet another mark of fine producing. Kee’s vocal characteristics are well-suited to this piece. He even sounds a bit like the great James Taylor and manages a mandolin solo JT would envy.

I particularly enjoyed Jim Pankey’s banjo solo and James Kee’s mando solo on I Hear Ya Talkin. Both Pankey and Kee’s use of bluesy phrasing and triplet lines present a well-timed and refreshing contrast to breaks traditionally expected from a bluegrass-looking group. Josh Hixson’s bass work stands out throughout the CD, but his performance here is clearly what makes this piece work so well.

Image635836049058991816From the first few listening moments, it is clear that this project benefits from first rate production counsel. The impressive level of musicianship, along with tasteful, musically-meaningful arrangements, clear and precise artistic direction, superb material choices and a magnificent overall audio layout, assure this project succeeds in communicating its’ art. It also succeeds in establishing the cast as one that is not only serious about their music, but able to convey it with command and polish. There are no ‘sharp’ edges, nor musical places that leave one’s ear dangling in anticipation of timing bumps, severed notes, butchered feathering and the like. Execution is spot-on: smooth, fluid, tasteful and confident.

In the opinion of this reviewer, there is not a single mediocre cut on this project. Virtually every detail has been crafted to express the unique artistic talents and musical integrity of The Hamilton County Ramblers. The recording quality and presentation, here, is on par with that of major touring groups within the greater Bluegrass community. This CD should serve as a catalyst to introduce The Hamilton County Ramblers to the mainstream Bluegrass marketplace and compel talent buyers to put them before larger audiences.

I recommend this CD, without reservation, for purchase by consumers of Bluegrass and acoustic music. This project will be of particular interest to those with an appreciation for exceptional musicianship, superior project development skills, and a distinctly fresh blend of creativity, talent and professionalism.

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